As history has ably demonstrated, movie sequels are just as susceptible to the laws of entropy as anything else in the universe. And just as Jaws: The Revenge and The Next Karate Kid represented the nadir of their particular franchises, so Superman IV: The Quest For Peace marked the end of Christopher Reeve’s tenure as the Man of Steel.
After the huge success of Superman and Superman II in 1978 and 1980, the series’ descent into self-parody began in earnest in 1983’s second sequel, which saw Richard Pryor skiing around for comic effect and Superman fighting a cyborg named Vera. But while the reviews and box office receipts for Superman III were tepid at best, they were as nothing compared to the outright scorn poured on 1987’s The Quest For Peace; The Washington Post stingingly described it as “More sluggish than a funeral barge, cheaper than a sale at K mart”.
Now commonly described as one of the worst sequels ever made, Superman IV marked the ignominious end to a once great series. But, as ever, this doesn’t mean to say there aren’t plenty of noteworthy things to find within its muddled 88 minutes…
It’s quite low-budget
Where the first three Superman movies were lavish productions, Superman IV ended up with around a quarter of the budget of its predecessors. By the mid-80s, original series producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind had sold the Superman rights to Cannon Films, a production company more used to making cheap action movies such as The Delta Force and Missing In Action. Cannon were also famous for producing Tobe Hooper’s weird space nude female vampire movie Lifeforce, and dance craze sequel Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Unlike the Salkinds, producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had a rather loose approach to filmmaking, and the sheer number of projects on its books meant that it only had about $17 million to spend on making Superman IV – considerably less than the estimated $55 million the first Superman cost to make in the late 70s.
Right from Superman IV‘s opening credits, the lower production values are plain to see. When Superman comes rushing from the distance to rescue a bunch of Russian cosmonauts whose space station has spun out of control, it isn’t a pretty sight – the blue screen effects are clearly rushed, with Superman wobbling through Earth’s orbit like a badly snipped-out photograph.
As we’ll soon see, the poor director (Sidney J Furie, whose career highpoint was perhaps the classic British thriller The Ipcress File) had to make cost-cutting measures all over the place…
A few fire hydrants can turn any location into New York
Where previous directors had the budget to film in downtown Manhattan, Furie had to make do with various hurriedly-dressed locations in the UK. An early scene, in which Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) is trapped on an out-of-control Metropolis subway train, is clearly shot in the London underground – all the “This is America, honest” posters dotted around can’t disguise the distinctive shape of Britain’s tube trains.
The film’s most infamous money-saving location, though, is its use of a Milton Keynes bus station as a stand-in for New York’s United Nations Headquarters on 42nd Street. As Christopher Reeve gloomily put it in his autobiography Still Me, “…we had to shoot at an industrial park in England in the rain with about a hundred extras, not a car in sight, and a dozen pigeons thrown in for atmosphere.”
It’s impossible to imagine just how depressing it must have been to set up this particular shot. You’re in Milton Keynes, you have a few dozen extras, and Christopher Reeve walking around in his cape, yet the location still doesn’t look like New York; it looks like a lonely part of a modern British city. Fortunately, one of Superman IV‘s production designers decided that the use of a few props – a hotdog seller, a woman carrying an “I Love NY” bag and a few polystyrene fire hydrants – would help convince audiences that Superman really was on his way to the UN building.
Various other British locations were immortalised in Superman IV, too; Clark Kent’s Smallville farm was actually shot in a place called Baldock in Hertfordshire, while a disused airfield in Saint Albans doubled for a US Air Force base.
“Don’t worry,” a location scout probably said during filming. “We’ll stick a couple of fire hydrants around the place, and nobody will suspect a thing…”
There are important messages about nuclear war and tabloid versus ‘proper’ journalism
If nothing else, Superman IV is a movie with important messages in it. At the start of the film, we learn that the Daily Planet has been taken over by media mogul David Warfield, who plans to turn the paper into a more lucrative tabloid rag with lurid headlines such as, “Superman says drop dead to kid!”
Warfield (Sam Wanamaker) fires honest editor Perry White, and instead installs his own daughter Lacy (Mariel Hemingway). One of the recurring plot threads involves Lacy’s infatuation with Superman, and her gradual understanding of the power of in-depth journalism – this transformation is illustrated by having Hemingway’s character wear suits with successively smaller shoulder pads.
While that’s going on, a letter from a small boy named Jeremy prompts Superman – after much soul searching and a trip to the Fortress of Solitude – to rid the world of nuclear weapons. “I know I’m forbidden to interfere,” Superman says, “but the Earth is threatened by the same fate as Krypton.”
“The Earth is too primitive. You can flee to a new world, where war is long forgotten,” advises an elderly hologram. “If you teach Earth to put its fate in any one man – even yourself – you’re teaching them to be betrayed. Betrayed. Betrayed! Betrayed!”
In spite of that haunting repetition, Superman convinces the United Nations to allow him to gather up all of the world’s nuclear missiles in a colossal fishing net (how long it took Superman to knit this isn’t made clear), and fling them into the sun. Unfortunately for Superman, his well-meaning gesture gives his arch-nemesis a cunning idea…
In his fourth large-screen adventure, an all-American hero did battle with a blonde, hulking, monosyllabic embodiment of evil. That film, of course, was Rocky IV. Perhaps inspired by that 1985 classic, Lex Luthor (a rather subdued Gene Hackman) decides to build a terrifying Adonis of his own.
With the help of his cretinous nephew Lenny (Jon Cryer, who talks like Otto out of The Simpsons), Luthor steals a lock of Superman’s hair from a museum, and using cutting edge Hollywood science, creates the evil Nuclear Man. He does this by first making a “Protoplasm grown from Superman’s hair cells.” By doing this, Luthor says, “We’ll duplicate creation itself. The computer inside will need enough material to maintain the high moral standards I’ve always aspired to.”
Hackman mumbles the end of that sentence, as though even he doesn’t quite understand what it means. But no matter: Luthor hides the protoplasm and the computer inside a nuclear warhead, which Superman dutifully hurls into the sun, little knowing the anguish he’s about to unleash.
In a blast of light, a solar-powered weightlifter is born: Nuclear Man, played by Mark Pillow – presumably because Dolph Lundgren was either too expensive, or too busy making another flop for Cannon Films, Masters Of The Universe.
With his strength, terrifying mane of golden hair, and radioactive black fingernails, Nuclear Man is, Luthor says,” Superman’s first nightmare. He’ll pierce his skin, make him mortal. Make him sick, and dance on his grave…”
Superman once fought Lord Greatjon Umber out of Game Of Thrones
Originally, the Nuclear Man played by Mark Pillow wasn’t the only solar-powered monster Superman fought. In an earlier cut of the film, which was once 45 minutes longer than the one which appeared in cinemas, Luthor actually made two versions of Nuclear Man. The first was a more shambolic character who possessed the same mixture of strength and childlike intelligence as Non in Superman II. He was played by Clive Mantle, a RADA-trained British actor who would later appear in episodes of Casualty, Holby City, The Vicar Of Dibley and Game Of Thrones, in which he plays Lord Greatjon Umber.
In what would have been Mantle’s first big-screen appearance, Nuclear Man fights Superman in downtown Metropolis. Apparently played for laughs, the fight involves cars being very slowly squashed together, and Christopher Reeve’s stunt double being thrown through billboard posters for well-known burger outlets. Eventually, Nuclear Man Mark One is flung across the city with one of Superman’s expert throws, and mysteriously explodes like a Catherine wheel.
It is, quite possibly, one of the weirdest deleted scenes in movie history, and proves that, no matter how bad you might think Superman IV is as it stands, it could so easily have been far, far worse…
Clark Kent does aerobics
In a quintessentially 80s scene, Mariel Hemingway and Christopher Reeve slide into their lycra and do some aerobics. Given that this scene was shot in a Milton Keynes gym, it must have been a surreal experience for those extras, as Reeve does his usual bumbling Kent routine. A gym instructor attempts to humiliate Kent in front of his lady friend, but just like that nasty truck driver in Superman II, he soon gets his comeuppance – when Lacy’s not looking, Kent chucks a huge barbell at the mouthy gym instructor. “Uh, no pain no gain” Kent says, as the gym instructor falls to the floor, possibly dead.
Superman cooks duck with his eyes
There are many, many strange incidental scenes in Superman IV. There’s the one where Lex Luthor dances with a woman dressed as Marie Antoinette.
There’s the scene where Superman suggestively asks Lois Lane, “How’d you like going solo?”
Our favourite, though, is the scene where Lois tells Superman that she’s cooking him a spot of dinner. “I’m cooking us some scallops and some duck in this wonderful mushroom sauce with champagne,” Lois rambles, clearly eager to impress. Superman, anxious to get back out of the room as quickly as possible, uses his special scowling powers to rapidly roast the duck to perfection.
Superman does a lot of tidying up
Although the first 50-or-so minutes of Superman IV are spent setting up the complicated love quadrangle between Lacy and Clark and Lois and Superman, it’s all shoved aside for the final half-hour stretch, which is essentially one long fight scene between the Man of Steel and Nuclear Man (“I will hurt people!” the villain promises).
Actually, much of the final act isn’t so much a fight scene, as Superman’s attempts at cleaning up Nuclear Man’s trail of destruction. Nuclear Man smashes up the Great Wall of China, so Superman repairs it all, brick by brick. Nuclear Man sets off a volcano in what appears to be Sicily, so Superman slices off the top of a mountain and uses it like a cork to stem the flow of lava.
Superman’s compulsive love of tidying up is such that Nuclear Man even uses it to his tactical advantage. While Superman’s returning the Statue of Liberty back to its original position, Nuclear Man swoops down and, with a cat-like swipe, scratches the hero’s throat, leaving him with flu-like symptoms and lacking his super-powers.
On the brink of nuclear-hastened death, Clark uses a Kryptonian energy module (saved from the space ship hidden in Smallville) to restore his energy – which is just as well, because Nuclear Man has developed an alarming crush on Lacy, and wants to kidnap her.
Yet another fight breaks out on the streets of Metropolis, in which lots of cars are broken and Nuclear Man shouts, “Rarrgh!” rather a lot. Having demolished various cars and buildings, Superman and Nuclear Man resume their fight on the Moon, where rocks are thrown and Superman’s bashed into the ground like a tent peg. And in the midst of all this violence, Superman still finds the time to make sure the American flag, famously deposited by Neil Armstrong in 1969, is standing up straight.
Women can breathe in space
Having engaged in a seemingly eternal slow-motion fight with Superman on the Moon, Nuclear Man mysteriously decides to whizz back down to Earth to kidnap Lacy. While she’s talking about the relative merits of quality journalism, Nuclear Man smashes through the ceiling of Daily Planet HQ with a Godzilla roar.
Then, in an extremely bizarre development, he flies off into space with her. Where is he going? What will he do when he gets there? We never find out; we can only note that everything we thought we knew about space is wrong. It’s actually quite possible for a human being to survive in the vacuum of space, and not suffocate or freeze to death – you can actually hear Lacy gasp and breathe as she struggles in Nuclear Man’s grip.
Fortunately, Superman’s quick thinking saves the day. He pushes the Moon in front of the sun, cutting off the life-giving rays Nuclear Man needs to fight and shout. Then the Man of Steel rushes Lacy back to Earth (somehow preventing her from burning up on re-entry), before flying back into space, grabbing Nuclear Man, and stuffing him into a power plant (actually Didcot Power Station in Oxfordshire, fact fans).
In case we had any trouble following all that, Superman helpfully explains to Lex Luthor what happened. “High school physics, Luthor. While was recuperating, I had time to figure out that, if you’re a foul creature born from the sun, that had to be a source of energy.”
We’d love to hear Superman explain the science behind the rest of the movie…
Superman IV isn’t quite as bad as you might have expected
With Nuclear Man squashed into a reactor and presumably dead, the final pieces of the story fall into place. Good guy former editor Perry White manages to buy out Rupert Murdoch’s – sorry, David Warfield’s – stake in the Daily Planet, thus returning it to a quality broadsheet. Lex Luthor’s dragged back to prison, while his nephew Lenny is sent to a boys’ school, which is run by a very shifty-looking clergyman. “Every boy can be helped, Superman,” he says.
When compared to Superman and Superman II, the dodgy special effects, disjointed storyline and gaps of logic present throughout Superman IV make it an obvious disappointment. The budgetary constraints are obvious wherever you look, and the script is, at times, laughably bad (“I’d like our civilians to know that our subway system is still the most safe and reliable form of transportation,” Superman says after preventing a train crash).
Bearing all this in mind, I’d argue that time’s been unusually kind to Superman IV, and viewed for what it is – a camp, messy B-movie – it’s actually enormously entertaining; more so, perhaps, than the disappointing Superman III. Had Superman IV been shot with the $40million budget originally earmarked, it’s even possible that, with more money to sort out the effects and continuity errors, the movie would have been regarded by history as something of a return to form instead of a failure.
At the very least, Superman IV has Gene Hackman back as Luthor. And while doesn’t exactly have all his dramatic cylinders firing here, he’s still sly, self-aggrandising and very funny; he launches a nuclear missile while dressed as an American general, complete with cigar and extraneous shades. He tells Superman to calm down and buy a kitten. He dances with Marie Antoinette.
Then, finally, we come to Lois and Clark. Even woeful production values and a duff script can distract from the undeniable charisma and chemistry Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve bring to their roles. When Lois visits Clark, whom she thinks is simply sick with flu and not dying from nuclear poisoning, it’s a surprisingly touching moment:
“If [Superman] really is in trouble, then there’s something I’d like to tell him. I’d tell him that I will always cherish the time we spent together, and I never expected anything in return. It didn’t matter how many minutes I saw him for – it always made me happy. Tell him that I love him. I’ll always love him.”
Sadly, this would be the last scene Kidder and Reeve would spend alone together as Lois and Clark. And with Superman IV’s box office failure, it would be almost 20 years before Krypton’s most famous son would fly again.
Superman IV isn’t the swansong Christopher Reeve deserved – to date, he remains the best large-screen incarnation of the Man of Steel – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t, at the very least, a lot of fun.
Other entries in the ’10 remarkable things’ series:
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